Hi Kenny, how are you today?
Very good thank you! I’m just back from travelling to Peru, where we have been growing our network of farmers by appearing on radio shows and running events with co-operatives – and I recently went to an awards ceremony where WeFarm won the MEFFYs award for Innovation in Technology. It’s all very exciting at the moment!
I’m jumping straight in here as I am intrigued by how it all works. How can farmers in Peru and Kenya share and access information without the internet?
Farmers can register to WeFarm by sending a simple, free SMS to the country-specific WeFarm number. Once they’ve signed up then they can start asking questions, answering questions they receive and sharing farming tips by SMS – possible on even the most basic feature phone!
The way it works is quite simple really, all SMS messages are processed automatically by our online platform that decides which farmers are most relevant to receive the questions. Questions on coffee are directed to other coffee farmers, questions on tea to tea farmers, etc. and they are sent on via SMS. We send questions to other farmers locally and internationally, with the idea that farmers can obtain both instant, relevant local knowledge as well as new ideas and insights from further afield. We have a network of volunteer translators, who translate questions and tips before they are sent around the world to farmers in other countries.
This is such an innovative concept, what was the inspiration behind it?
Having spent 7 years working in Peru with indigenous farming communities, I had a deep interest in sustainable agriculture. I had worked a lot with farmers on grassroots projects and I was always very impressed with the unique and low-cost solutions farmers would come up with as solutions to their problems. Farmers living less than 20 miles away wouldn’t have any way to hear about these local innovations because very few people in rural Latin America and Africa have internet access.
When I moved back to the UK as part of the start-up team for Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation I put my ideas together with Claire Rhodes, my co-founder, and we wrote the project that became WeFarm in a couple of hours. We both believe passionately in harnessing community knowledge and experience and wanted to create something that wasn’t about parachuting in top-down advice but something where farmers could share information with other farmers and create solutions for themselves.
How have the farmers responded to the ease of access so far?
Very well so far – on average 65% of all our users actively contribute knowledge, whether that’s through asking a question, answering one, or sharing a tip. This is exceptionally high when compared to most other social networks you may have heard about. It’s been amazing to watch how willing people are to share information with one another, and shows that there is a real gap in the market!
When we were developing WeFarm lots of people would ask us questions like ‘why would a farmer want to help another farmer that they’ve never met?’, but I think that giving people the opportunity to share their expertise when they have probably never been asked for their opinion before gives an incredibly powerful message. It’s not just about the exchange of information; it’s also about empowering people to have their voice heard.
Interesting patterns of how farmers use WeFarm have started to emerge – the younger farmers are much likely to ask questions whereas the older farmers are much more likely to answer them, which is exactly the kind of generational knowledge exchange we were aiming for!
What advice would you give to other startups wanting to start a social business?
Firstly, know your customer! Only when you know the wants and needs of the people you’re aiming to help can you develop something truly useful for them. As we were developing WeFarm we did a lot of work testing the concept with farmers and we tried to involved them in the design process as much as possible. In this stage, be agile, try lots of different things, find flaws, and discover what really works. It’s very easy to build something in the UK and then take it to Africa – but you can’t expect people to find it useful and relevant. Involving users in the design process is key.
Secondly, be thick skinned. If you’re creating something truly innovative and disruptive there will be millions of people out there who don’t believe in your idea but it’s so important to keep going, no matter what other people think.
How has the business been funded so far?
When we were developing the product we were given a couple of grants by the Nominet Trust and the Knight Foundation, which really helped us to create the initial concept and pilot the product in Africa and Latin America. Then, in August 2014, we won the Google Impact Challenge which enabled us to start to scale. Google have been excellent and we’re incredibly grateful – without them believing in us I don’t think we would be where we are now. Sir Richard Branson called us via Skype to announce us as the winner of the award – one of the more surreal moments I’ve had since starting WeFarm!
We’re about to launch our first round of investment in order to further grow the business help improve the livelihoods of millions of farmers.
What do you know now that you wish you knew before co-launching WeFarm?
To be honest there were loads of things I didn’t know before launching WeFarm but that has definitely been part of the fun and it’s what every entrepreneur should go through! I have learned so much since launching WeFarm, about marketing, finance, law, what it’s like to do business in other countries, how to write a business plan, the list goes on…
What plans do you have for WeFarm in the near future?
We have very big ambitions for WeFarm, including a target to have 50,000 farmers using WeFarm by Christmas. Next year we have a whole host of other countries to expand in - Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, India and Colombia as our target is to reach half a million farmers by the end of 2016… and keep growing from there.
We’re also looking to expand our network of volunteer translators so if you know anyone who speaks Spanish or Swahili let them know you’ve found a great way for them to practice their language skills – all you need is 5 spare minutes to translate a question, you can now change the world over a cup of coffee!
What is the greatest business advice you were ever given?
Talk to as many people as possible about your business idea! At the beginning when we had first come up with the idea for WeFarm we were very protective about the idea and worried about other people stealing it. Worrying about people copying you prevents you from talking to lots of people and that’s how you get feedback on your product, build a network of people who want to help you and get the word out. I promise you, in reality, it’s extremely difficult to get people to listen to your idea at all… let alone steal it!
Would you say social media is important to business growth and recognition?
I think that social media has been a game changer for small businesses. It enables people to connect directly with customers and gain new customers without having to fork out thousands of pounds on large advertising campaigns. Although we don’t use it in that way (as most of our farmers don’t have internet access), I know lots of other start-ups who have had a lot of success that way.
Social media is great for us in promoting what we’re doing – we have team members around the world always going to interesting events, plus we like to use it to showcase the expertise of the farmers in our network. They’re always sharing useful tips on farming so we like to share that with the rest of the world.
Congratulations on completing three marathons so far, anymore in the pipeline?
I’m not signed up for any at the moment – running a start-up is more than enough running for now! But I am hoping to register for one soon – maybe next year I can do one in one of the countries that we launch in. I’ve always wanted to run a marathon in Africa or Latin America so I suppose now is the perfect time!
Want to find out more about WeFarm and support what they are doing, them click here!